These labels have been flung around the atheist blogosphere lately. Jerry Coyne seems to be one of the people most outspoken about “accommodationists,” those that think science and religion can happily get along. Coyne thinks science and religion are inherently incompatible – a view I happen to agree with – and explained it nicely in a piece for USA Today.

The opponents of accommodationists have been labeled “confrontationalists.” PZ Myers wrote up an excellent piece on why he’s a confrontationalist after a panel discussion at the Secular Humanism conference. Apparently the whole accommodationist vs. confrontationalist idea was interesting enough for the New York Times to do a piece on it. It’s the whole firebrands vs. diplomats thing all over again – I guess the media love seeing drama within movements. So why am I beating a dead horse?

Because I hate labels, especially crappy labels.

They’re not just crappy because typing accommodationist and confrontationalist over and over makes my hands cramp up – they’re simply horrible at describing what they’re trying to convey. We’re really dealing with two totally different topics: 1) The relationship between science and religion, and 2) Strategies for engaging people.

I would argue the way people think about science and religion falls (mostly) into a binary. There’s the camp that thinks science and religion are compatible, comprised of people like Chris Mooney, Eugenie Scott, Francis Collins, and Chris Stedman. They’re the people you’ll hear talking about “non-overlapping magesteria” and listing successful scientists who are also religious. Then there’s a camp that thinks science and religion are incompatible, comprised of people like Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Hemant Mehta, and myself. We’d argue that religious belief is inherently unscientific, and simultaneously being religious and a scientist involves a bit of compartmentalization in your brain.

Notice how religious belief or lack thereof doesn’t necessarily put you in one category or another. You have atheists who believe science and religion are compatible, and atheists who don’t. And I’m sure there are religious people out there who think religion and science are incompatible – the type of theists who make whole museums devoted to poo-pooing science.

The problem starts when we try to merge this viewpoint with different ways people engage others, like labeling the other side as “confrontationalists.” We try to lump this binary with the idea of firebrands and diplomats. But I’m going to argue that it is not a binary, but rather a spectrum. And it’s not just a spectrum in that some people are more aggressive than others – some people can also span wide parts of the spectrum. To illustrate, here I compare myself with some bloggers I enjoy (mainly chosen since I feel the most familiar with their strategies, and didn’t want to misrepresent others):

Notice how I didn’t simply rank people along the spectrum with a single point. That’s because I think there’s a serious aspect people miss when trying to employ this false dichotomy: those who can engage people differently depending on the situation.

I generally hate labels, so I’m hesitant to add “Situationalists” to the growing list, but it describes some people the best. PZ is pretty much always a firebrand, but bloggers like Hemant and Greta can be more or less aggressive depending on the situation.

It also describes me best. When I was president of my student group at a conservative college in a religious area, I needed to be much more diplomatic. I could have run out guns blazing, but the club would have never gotten off the ground. Because I chose a more diplomatic route, we became as well respected as we’re going to get in our community. That’s what was needed in that situation – becoming established, and letting people know that atheists aren’t all monsters.

But here on my blog, I have a much different approach. I’m more of a firebrand. I’m not representing an organization, so I’m more able to speak my mind and “rally the troops.” Or as Rebecca Watson lovingly called me during our panel podcast last week, I’m “a dick with a purpose.”

I don’t think my range is broad just because I’m young and new to the movement – I can think of other student leaders who rank on either extreme of that spectrum. Lucy Gubbins of the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists is very much a diplomat, and JT Eberhard of the Missouri State University Pastafarians is very much a firebrand.

And I think they both are amazing – being a situationalist is not necessarily better. People should do what they’re good at. If you’re good at playing Bad Cop, there’s a Good Cop out there too. We just have to remember there are people like me who don’t neatly fit on either side.

Then why are we labeling all people who think science and religion are incompatible as confrontationalists? We have people like Hemant who clearly fall into that group, but are about as friendly and diplomatic as you can get. If I had to guess, it’s because most people who think science and religion are compatible also happen to be diplomats. The term “accommodationist” is the mish-mash of those two ideas – you don’t just think science and religion are compatible, but you want to use that idea as a way to reach people in a friendly matter.

So, can we nix the confrontationalists label? It seems to serve no other purpose than to paint those who think science and religion are incompatible in a negative, hostile light. Hey, maybe the reason why the arguments of accommodationists seem so wishy washy is because they don’t have enough firebrands on their side.

…Or maybe it’s just because they’re wrong. But that’s a whole other post.